In almost all the polls conducted prior to the 2016 presidential election in the US, Hillary Clinton led Trump in every age group except one: Trump convincingly beat her among those 65 or older. Trump spoke of a time when America was supposedly great and told the country that he wanted to restore America’s greatness once again. His speeches regularly drummed up the anxieties of social change, the nostalgia about an imagined past, and the unfounded claim that there was an existential threat looming over America primarily because America’s culture was unravelling from within and there were external forces trying to take down America from without.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound too alien to Nepali ears because right now that is what we are witnessing from the elderly Nepali elites, especially those who have big presence in the social media—those ever ready to blame federalism, secularism, the new Constitution, the new republic, and anything in between for all things bad happening around them. The Nepali elderly elites—those who were able to reap the most benefits from the unitary, Kathmandu-centric, unsecular, nominally democratic system under the monarchy—want us to believe that if not for them, Nepal as a nation-state would no longer be existent on the map.
What explains this revanchist mood among the elderly elites? Writing for the popular psychology magazine “Psychology Today,” the psychologist and author Thomas Chamorro claims that, as we get older, our diminishing level of curiosity stunts our openness to experience; the gradual decrease in our information-processing capacity makes us see things in more categorical or black and white terms; and our desire for order and structure balks at proactive adaptation, effort, and improvisation. Further, psychologists have also pointed out that the moral values one grows up with or the worldview one is taught as a child plays a huge role on people’s notion of right and wrong, which often lasts for a lifetime. Perhaps, that partly explains why our elderly elites are dyspeptic about recent changes. In the Brexit referendum of 2016, for example, 72 percent of those aged between 18 to 24 voted “remain” but still lost to those who voted “leave” because people over the age of 65 had disproportionate impact on the referendum results.
“Despite young people having to live with the decision of the referendum for an average of 69 years, it has been decided for them by people who will only have to live with it for an average of 16 years,” wrote one graduate student for the magazine Vox. “Put simply: The long-term effect of Brexit will not be felt by those who overwhelmingly voted for it. Because they will be dead.”
Because the elders have less stake in the future of the country, they are skeptical about changes regardless of whether they are positive or negative, and are more inclined to look backwards, mostly to an imagined past when everything was supposedly hunky-dory. Whereas the youths, owing to their aspirations about the times ahead, are less fearful and more accepting of the social changes.
Young Bob Dylan spoke of this general trend in his song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” when he sang, “Come mothers and fathers/ Throughout the land/ And don’t criticize/ What you can’t understand/ Your sons and your daughters/ Are beyond your command/ Your old road is rapidly agin’/ Please get out of the new one/ If you can’t lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin’.” Dylan wrote this song in the 1960s as an “archetypal protest anthem” when the Blacks in America were fighting for equal rights under the law.
The counterculture movement that developed in the Western world between mid-1960s to mid-1970s accelerated the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Free Speech Movement and raised awareness against the traditional and mostly arbitrary modes of authority that directly or indirectly controlled people’s lives in the Western world.
To expect an equivalent movement from Nepali youths, however, would be to ask too much from them, for the youths in our country are mostly happy to remain as the ideological appendages of the elders, failing to carve out their own individual identity while inheriting the blinkered worldview that defines the hoary heads.
Unfortunately, our youths are happy playing monkeys in the streets parroting the boilerplate lines that flows from their leaders, obsessing with the latest brands of bikes, and vying for greener pastures in faraway lands at the first opportune moment. I bring this up because I don’t think this is so much an indictment of the youths as it is of their parents who have thwarted the critical thinking abilities of their kids.
“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage,” claimed Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century German philosopher—unfortunately, our parents (I include myself as well) haven’t received the memo even after these many centuries. The elder elites know that there will be no one to mount any challenge on their authority, not at least any time soon. Perhaps that too explains the solipsism, the puffed up feeling of one’s indispensability that we see in our elderly elites.
Before anybody accuse me of being a tradition-defying nihilist, here’s a blog What will the conservatives conserve? that I wrote a week ago which tries to show my appreciation of conservative values. However, the conservatism that we see in Nepal, I believe, is too backward, atavistic, and hence indefensible in so many ways. There is an urgent need to reimagine our national identity such that a vast majority feels included in the democratic process, and federalism and secularism provide us the mid-way forward. Of course, it may not be the only way, but it is the mid-way mark that we have reached to incorporate the voices of dissent that have festered in our societies for many years. We also need to keep in mind that if we are to forestall any demands on “multi-national autonomous states”(which I think will be disastrous for a country like ours) we need to find a middle ground around political principles like constitutionalism, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. In order to do that the elderly elites need to trust the process and stop sowing doubts in the population about federalism, secularism and the new Constitution. The Constitution must be seen as a living document that is amenable to change through amendments and will invariably do so toward forming a just and equitable Nepal.
In the lead up to the 2016 election in the US, an article titled “The Flight 93 Election,” authored under a pseudonym, made a huge splash in the conservative circles of the country. In it, the author had quite dramatically analogized the 2016 election to one of the planes, United Airlines Flight 93, that was highjacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001, and had asked the readers what they would do under the circumstances? Whether they would charge the cockpit even though they didn’t know how to fly or land the plane, or they would simply do nothing—not even try—and wait for their deaths which was certain? For the author Hillary’s presidency meant that death was certain, whereas Trump’s meant that they would still have the chance of survival because it would mean that they had charged the cockpit and taken control of the plane even if they didn’t know what was going to happen next. The conservatives charged the cockpit, elected Trump, and floundered with the country for next four years. It seems that our elderly elites feel the same about federalism, secularism, and the new republic—they want us to think that if they don’t charge the cockpit Nepal will cease to exist. Well, it will be great if we took some lessons from four years of Trump.